More liberal-leftists than care to admit it now rooted for al-Qaeda and the Saddamist militias as they slaughtered "the powerless" and tried to overthrow the elected Iraqi government. Even they must raise an eyebrow at the award of a peace prize to one of their number. Pilger was not arguing for peace. He was taking sides — the wrong side in my view — in a war. To overcome this formidable obstacle, the Sydney judges fly off into a make-believe world in which ideas lose any connection to meaning. On their lips, "peace," "courage," "justice," and "human rights" become vacuous murmurs of approval that splash over the ideologically-favoured like warm water from a shower — and then gurgle into the gutter.
They cannot have thought that they would get away with it, and they didn't. Hostile bloggers duly mocked and condemned them. But I suspect they did not care because they were not criticised by their own side. The overwhelming majority of political writers on the internet do not fact-check allies or warn them that they are making a mistake. Indeed, the standard web author rarely sees the need to spell out what his or her side believes in and argue for it in the marketplace of ideas. Instead, they encourage group loyalty and group-think by denouncing opponents. Free access to content makes the building of tribal identification by ritual jeering at opponents the dominant style. We are so used to it we forget its novelty. A generation ago, a conservative would have been aware that left-wing newspapers contained ideas he found ridiculous or sinister. However, as he would never waste his money buying a copy, he could spend his life in happy ignorance of the specifics. The same applied to liberals with the Tory press. Now it is easy, far too easy, for a blogger to click on an ideological opponent's site or newspaper and select heretical thoughts to copy and denounce to his allies.
The limitations of the style were there for all to see when Britain witnessed the largest outbreak of Fisking the web has yet experienced. It began when Jan Moir, a sort of conservative Pilger, wrote a creepy piece in the Daily Mail about the sudden death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately. The web erupted in such fury that its anger was a newsworthy phenomenon in itself. Via Twitter and conventional websites, protesters lodged a record number of objections with the Press Complaints Commission about Moir's insinuation, based on no evidence whatsoever, that the coroner was wrong to say that the gay pop star's death had been natural. It had something to do with his homosexuality, she maintained, although for the life of her, she did not know what. By the time she had thrown in that Gately's death had been a "blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships" for homosexuals, the web was aflame.
The outrage seemed to fulfil the dreams of those who predicted that the Net would humble haughty elitists. In the past, gatekeeper journalists at the Mail or any other paper could inflict their prejudices on the masses without fear of reprisals. Now, critics could check their facts instantly — there was no evidence that Gately's homosexuality had anything to do with his death. A surprisingly large number of apparently healthy young men drop dead because of undiagnosed heart problems. The death of a gay man no more invalidates gay marriage than the death of a heterosexual man invalidates conventional marriage. Net enthusiasts emailed and tweeted me to say that we were seeing "reader power" in action. And I had to tell them that we were seeing nothing of the sort.
The protesters weren't readers of the Mail, who remained as suspicious of gay liberation as ever. They were opponents of social conservatism who were using the access the internet has brought to papers they once ignored to register their violent disapproval of views they had always violently opposed. They were affirming their membership of the liberal tribe rather than announcing their break with conservatism. On the net, as in the rest of life, team-building does not lead to sceptical questioning but to the reinforcement of their existing opinions and loyalties.
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